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Frank Fiume turned love of baseball into i9 Sports powerhouse

Kids playing baseball

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At one time, Frank Fiume essentially led a double life.

Intriguing, right?

Well, to Fiume, it was hurtful. After all, he was just a child and psychologically unequipped to cope with circumstances, prompted by the divorce of his mother and father.

Despite what was to come, Fiume’s childhood got off on a relatively Ozzie and Harriett-like start. Born in New York and raised in Long Island along with his sister, Donna, Fiume said he had “two great parents. It was really a unified love of having both of them.” The pristine picture included life in a comfortable suburban home.

However, after the split, when Fiume was nine, the ground underneath him seemed to quake as his largely tranquil lifestyle devolved into something completely unrecognizable – not to mention unfathomable to him.

“It turned into quite an emotional and financial turmoil,” said Fiume. “I still saw my dad a couple of times a month but was raised by my mom. It had a real deep impact on me. I was so disappointed and stunned,” said Fiume, 50, who recounted his story in a book, Running with My Head Down, It’s available for pre-order on Amazon.

 

Compounding matters, when his parents broke up in the mid-70s, divorce was just becoming more common, he explained. “I was the first kid in my class of divorced parents. I was like the outcast and treated totally differently. It was devastating and affected my schoolwork. I was left back nearly every year. I think summer school saved me,” said Fiume.

 

While he cobbled his way through academically, Fiume and his sister had to deal with two profoundly different tales that came with shared custody. When with their mother, the trio flitted from apartment to apartment in Queens, including what Fiume described as “a slum like” residence. “You turned on the lights in the kitchen and cockroaches were running up walls and under cupboards.”

A Hallmark movie scene doesn’t exactly come to mind.

Conversely, time with their dad, by then remarried, meant staying in a new house on the water, complete with a large boat on a dock and in-ground pool. “I was living these two different lifestyles,” Fiume said flatly. “I just didn’t understand.” Nevertheless, he held neither parent accountable. “It was just weird to live in poverty, and then get picked up every other weekend and to go my dad’s and live a completely different lifestyle, where there was air conditioning and heat opposed to living in this tenement apartment in Queens.”

Now, while his mother couldn’t offer the standard of life that his father could, what she did provide was every bit as valuable to Fiume: “the ability to have gratitude early on for what I have. It taught me that, at end of the day, a house is just four walls and a ceiling.”

Throughout the tribulations, Fiume’s obsessions with baseball, which began when he was about eight, remained his safe harbor; one of the few islands of stability in his life. However, probably because he was just a kid then, Fiume didn’t look at it nearly as provocatively. But as time’s taught him, categorizing baseball as merely an interest of his back in the day was like, say, describing Babe Ruth as merely a singles hitter. You get it.

“It’s so crazy, because when I was a kid, I never thought of baseball as my escape; but it absolutely was. I spent all my time watching the (New York) Yankees on T.V., listening to (Yankees broadcaster) Phil Rizzuto on the radio and playing baseball board games.”

 

Without the peace of mind and, yes, even distraction that the sport provided, Fiume shudders to think of what might have become of him as he grew up. “I probably would have gotten myself into trouble. I was a little mischievous, but I think baseball helped contain it.” Otherwise, he continues. “I probably would have been a trouble maker.”

 

But instead of wreaking havoc, Fiume constantly keyed in on what he’d do in life. “I was always kind of envious of kids; they knew what they wanted to do, and I was always consumed with this obsession, asking my dad what I was supposed to do. He’d always tell me ‘don’t worry; you’ll figure it out.’”

 

His dad turned out to be prescient. When Fiume entered St. John’s University in Queens in the 1980s, he seemed destined to study business management. However, when he discovered the school offered a major in Sports Management, he gladly reconsidered. “St. John’s had internships set up with (a number of local professional teams like) the Yankees, New York Mets and New York Giants. Being a sports nut, it was everything I could have imagined.” Darn if Fiume didn’t think he’d found his nirvana.

 

But his dad proved to be a tough nut. “When I told him I’d found what I wanted to do, he said he’d look into it.” He consulted with a friend, a former kicker for the New York Jets, who didn’t think it was a good idea for Fiume to pursue a career in sports. “He thought I’d be nothing more than a $17,000 a year gym teacher in an elementary school. It was pretty devastating for me, because I’d found my love.”

Children playing football in a youth sports program

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Unfortunately, that love went temporarily unrequited as Fiume succumbed to his dad’s will and stuck with pursuing studies in business management at St John’s. However, after he graduated, he remained unsure of what he wanted to do. So, Fiume started researching sports law. Well, once more, he thought he’d hit pay dirt when he concluded ‘I’m going to get my law degree and become a sports agent.’ “Without anyone’s knowledge, he studied for the law school entrance exam and performed well on a test. At that point, he’d all but packed his bags, raring to attend California Western in San Diego to pursue a degree in Sports Law. But he apprised his father of his plans and received a less than enthusiastic response.

“He told me there were too many lawyers out there and that I’d never make it. He said I’d be in debt and that he wouldn’t help me.” Fiume was copasetic with that but regretted that his father “scared me out of (what I wanted to do.)”

However, the one thing his dad approved of was his son seeking a career in medical sales. “He was in the field and very successful.” Well, maybe his father was in his comfort zone with that career choice, but Fiume couldn’t fathom it for himself. “I was just going through the routine. He was much more of a low-risk guy, and I suppose at the time I was sowing my entrepreneurial spirit and knew I wanted more.” Nevertheless, Fiume entered medical sales and made good money. Green aside, however, Fiume said “I hated it with a passion. I didn’t feel like it was fulfilling my passion or soul.”

Something, it seemed, had to give.

Wouldn’t you know it that in about 1990, when Fiume was 23, he bumped into friends playing softball. Naturally, they encouraged him to grab a glove and join the crowd. “We started playing in this softball league in Long Island, but it was so poorly run that the more I looked in it, the more I thought, ‘what if I ran a softball league as a hobby?’” As he further investigated how the league operated and was impressed by the revenues that could be generated. “They were charging about $1,000 a team, with no overhead or other expenses.” So Fiume decided to run a softball league himself. Sure enough, though, a number of people, including his father, said ‘don’t do it.’ “He hated the idea.”

However, Fiume had found his mojo and was intent on seeing it through. Not that he planned on quitting his day job – not yet, anyway, “but in the back of my mind, I couldn’t wait to get rid of that job,” said Fiume, founder of i9 Sports, a franchise of youth leagues and camps. It was the first franchised sports league in this country. Since 2003, i9 has generated more than $300 million in sales, with 2 million participants in 900 communities across 30 states nationwide.

 

He began the company by “chipping away, slowing securing fields” in Suffolk County in Long Island, which he called “the worst elementary and middle school fields. But I knew what teams wanted.” He also knew what they had been getting, including highly inferior customer service and follow up, not to mention umpires who regularly failed to show up to work games. “But I knew how to do basic essentials and the way to treat people.”

 

Kim Armellino, vice president of Finance & Administration at i9 Sports Corporation, based in Riverview, Florida, and Fiume’s first employee, admires how he treats others, which she recognized the moment they met. “I felt an instant connection to Frank. It was an interview for a part-time bookkeeper position and the interview quickly turned to comfortable conversation. I left feeling energized and excited.”

 

Armellino continued: “Frank believes strongly in personal and professional growth and would often attend conventions. I used to joke that we all needed seatbelts at the first staff meeting after a convention because we were in for a wild ride. It could be a direction change, or an idea to propel rapid growth. He has a way of making you excited about the next idea or phase of the business.”

 

Fiume and his wife Nadine, who reside in the Tampa Bay area, are excited about the good people they’ve raised their children to be. Despite his high degree of visibility in Tampa Bay due to his business, people regularly tell him and his wife how well grounded their kids are. He’s always warmed by their message. “People tell me all the time they can’t believe how humble our family is, and that’s one of the nicest things anyone’s ever said to me.”

 

“Frank’s children have always been fun, polite and respectful,” noted Armellino. “Everyone loves when they stop by the office or help with a photo shoot because we had the pleasure of watching them grow up.”

 

Fiume’s message to his children? “Pursue your passion in life; don’t follow dreams others have for you. I’d rather they fail than do something safe and live an entire life of unfulfillment.”

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